Ken Curtis (born Curtis Wain Gates; July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) was an American singer and actor best known for his role as Festus Haggen on the CBS western television series Gunsmoke. Although he appeared on Gunsmoke earlier in other roles, he was first cast as Festus in season 8 episode 13, December 8, 1962 “Us Haggens.” His next appearance was Season 9, episode 2, October 5, 1963 as Kyle Kelly, in “Lover Boy.” Curtis joined the cast of Gunsmoke permanently as Festus in “Prairie Wolfer,” season 13 episode 10, November 11, 1967.
Born the youngest of three boys in Lamar in Prowers County in southeastern Colorado, Curtis lived his first ten years on a ranch on Muddy Creek in eastern Bent County. In 1926, the family moved to Las Animas, the county seat of Bent County, so that his father, Dan Sullivan Gates, could run for sheriff. The campaign was successful, and Gates served from 1927 to 1931 as Bent County sheriff. The family lived below the jail, since the jail was the whole second floor and his mother, Nellie Sneed Gates, cooked for the prisoners. The jail is located for historical preservation purposes on the grounds of the Bent County Courthouse in Las Animas.
Curtis was the quarterback of his Bent County High School football team and played clarinet in the school band. He graduated in 1935. During World War II, Curtis served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1945.
He attended Colorado College to study medicine, but left after a short time to pursue his musical career.
Curtis was a singer before moving into acting, and combined both careers once he entered films. Curtis was with the Tommy Dorsey band in 1941, and succeeded Frank Sinatra as vocalist until Dick Haymes contractually replaced Sinatra in 1942. Curtis may have served simply as insurance against Sinatra’s likely defection, and it was Dorsey who suggested that Gates change his name to Ken Curtis. Curtis then joined Shep Fields and His New Music, an all-reeds band that dispensed with a brass section.
Curtis met his first wife, Lorraine Page, at Universal Studios, and they were married in 1943. For much of 1948, Curtis was a featured singer and host of the long-running country music radio program WWVA Jamboree.
Ken Curtis joined the Sons of the Pioneers as a lead singer from 1949 to 1952. His big hits with the group included “Room Full of Roses” and “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”.
Columbia Pictures signed Curtis to a contract in 1945. He starred in a series of musical Westerns with the Hoosier Hot Shots, playing singing cowboy romantic leads.
Through his second marriage, Curtis was a son-in-law of film director John Ford. Curtis teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande. He was a singer in the movie’s fictional band The Regimental Singers that actually consisted of the Sons of the Pioneers; Curtis is not listed as a member of the principal cast. It is possible that he played a bit part, but Curtis is best remembered as Charlie McCorry in The Searchers, The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, and How The West Was Won. Curtis also joined Ford, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon, in the comedy Navy classic Mister Roberts. He was featured in all three of the only films produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney’s C. V. Whitney Pictures: The Searchers (1956); The Missouri Traveler (1958) with Brandon deWilde and Lee Marvin; and The Young Land (1959) with Patrick Wayne and Dennis Hopper. In 5 Steps to Danger (1957 film), he is uncredited as FBI Agent Jim Anderson. Curtis also produced two extremely low-budget monster films in 1959, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. Also, in the film adaptation Conagher based on a book by popular writer Louis L’Amour, he starred opposite Sam Elliott as an aging cattleman.
Curtis guest-starred five times on the Western television series Have Gun – Will Travel with Richard Boone. In 1959, he appeared as cowhand Phil Jakes on the Gunsmoke season four episode, “Jayhawkers”. He also guest-starred as circus performer Tim Durant on an episode of Perry Mason, “The Case of the Clumsy Clown”, which originally aired on November 5, 1960. Later, he appeared in Ripcord, a first-run syndicated action/adventure series about a company of its namesake providing skydiving services, along with its leading star Larry Pennell. This series ran from 1961 to 1963 with 76 half-hour episodes in total. Curtis played the role of James (Jim) Buckley and Pennell was his young disciple Theodore (Ted) McKeever. This television show helped generate interest in sport parachuting.
In 1964, Curtis appeared as muleskinner Graydon in the episode “Graydon’s Charge” of the syndicated Western television series, Death Valley Days, also guest-starring Denver Pyle and Cathy Lewis.
Curtis remains best known for his role as Festus Haggen, the scruffy, cantankerous, and illiterate deputy in Gunsmoke. While Marshal Matt Dillon had a total of five deputies over two decades, Festus held the role the longest (11 years), in 304 episodes. Festus was patterned after “Cedar Jack” (Frederick Munden), a man from Curtis’ Las Animas childhood. Cedar Jack, who lived 15 miles south of town, made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis observed many times that Jack came to Las Animas, where he would often end up drunk and in Curtis’ father’s jail. Festus’ character was known, in part, for the nasally, twangy, rural accent which Curtis developed for the role, but which did not reflect Curtis’ actual voice.
Besides engaging in the usual personal appearances most television stars undertake to promote their program, Curtis also traveled around the country performing at Western-themed stage show at fairs, rodeos, and other venues when Gunsmoke was not in production, and even for some years after the show was cancelled. Curtis also campaigned for Ronald Reagan in 1976, during the future President’s attempt to secure the Republican nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford.
In two episodes of Gunsmoke, Carroll O’Connor was a guest-star; years later, Curtis guest-starred as a retired police detective on O’Connor’s NBC program In the Heat of the Night. He voiced Nutsy the vulture in Disney’s 1973 animated film Robin Hood. A decade later, he returned to television in the short-lived Western series The Yellow Rose, in which he performed most of his scenes with Noah Beery, Jr..
In 1981, Curtis was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Curtis’ last acting role was as the aging cattle rancher “Seaborn Tay” in the television production Conagher (1991), by western author Louis L’Amour. Sam Elliott starred in the lead role, and Curtis’ Gunsmoke co-star Buck Taylor (Newly O’Brien) played a bad man in the same film. Buck Taylor’s father, Dub Taylor, had a minor role in it. He joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1967, superseding the previous deputy, Thaddeus “Thad” Greenwood, played by Roger Ewing.
Curtis married Torrie Connelly in 1966. They were married until his death in 1991 and he had two step-children.
A statue of Ken Curtis as Festus can be found at 430 Pollasky Avenue in Clovis, California, in Fresno County in front of the Educational Employees Credit Union. In his later years, Curtis resided in Clovis.
Curtis was a Republican and supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 United States presidential election.
Curtis died on April 28, 1991, in his sleep of a heart attack in Fresno, California. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.